Religion-related terrorism and harassment of Jews increasing worldwide, Pew study finds

The harassment of Jews worldwide continued to increase in 2014 even as government restrictions on religion and social hostilities involving religion decreased modestly, according to a new study.

The Pew Research Center’s annual study of 198 countries released Thursday also found an increase in religion-related terrorism, with 82 of the nearly 200 countries studied experiencing religion-related terrorist activities in 2014 — the most recent year studied. In 60 countries, the terrorist activities  led to injuries or deaths. Casualties from religion-related terrorist activities have been rising in recent years, the study reported.

The study did not address the religion with which the majority of the perpetrators of religion-related terrorism identified. However, all the examples cited were of acts perpetrated by Islamist groups and Muslim individuals.

The study found a “notable increase in the number of countries in which Jews and Hindus were harassed.” While Jews make up just 0.2 percent of the world’s population, they were harassed in 81 countries, up from 77 in 2013.

While some religious groups are more likely to be harassed by governments, the study found that Jews are more likely to be harassed by individuals or groups. In 31 countries did governments restrict Jews, while individuals or groups harassed Jews in 80 countries.

The study also found that among the world’s 25 most populous countries, the highest overall restrictions on religion in 2014 were in Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan, Russia and Turkey. With the exception of Russia, these countries are majority Muslim.

Petition calls on El Al to protect female passengers from haredi harassment

Hundreds have signed an online petition calling on El Al Airlines to protect female passengers from being harassed by haredi Orthodox men.

The petition on was launched Sunday, days after an El Al flight from New York to Tel Aviv was delayed in taking off when haredi Orthodox male passengers refused to sit next to women. As of Monday afternoon it had nearly 700 supporters.

Sharon Shapiro of Chicago, who initiated the petition, said she wanted to stop the phenomenon of “passenger shaming.”

“Some men become belligerent if their demands aren’t met, and spend flights bullying and harassing women who refused to change seats,” she wrote.

The petition recommends that El Al “reserve a few rows of separate sex seating on every flight, where for a fee, those passengers who need such seating can pre-book their seats and not annoy or coerce other passengers before take-off to change seats with them — thereby avoiding arguments, bullying, and delayed take-off.”

On the flight spurring the petition, some of the haredi men offered money to other passengers to switch seats.

Haredi passengers who could not switch their seats stood up immediately upon takeoff and remained in place, crowding the aisles and inconveniencing fellow passengers and flight attendants, Ynet reported. The flight crew informed passengers that they were under no obligation to agree to switches, but the captain also said the flight would not take off with people standing.

The flight arrived in Israel on the morning of Rosh Hashanah eve.

Egyptian women struggle to fight sexual harassment

Despite its calls for democracy, freedom of speech and revolution against traditional Egyptian society, the current anti-government demonstrations have witnessed one negative phenomenon – an increase in harassment of women.

Women have been attacked and in some instances raped in public during demonstrations in Tahrir Square which have escalated in recent days, with some rumors claiming that the government of President Mohamed Morsi is behind the attacks. Women were previously beaten by members of the army in past protests.

In response, groups of Cairo-educated women have undertaken to protect women.  Both the Tahrir Bodyguards and Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment were organized by women with a strong belief in fighting sexual harassment by raising awareness, empowering women, and creating groups on the ground to patrol marches and demonstrations.

Historically Egyptian women have made great strides in obtaining their rights. They enjoy a 77 percent literacy rate and are making an impact in the work place. They were granted rights, in some cases, way before their Western counterparts, including the right to vote and widespread participation in protests, going back to the 1919 revolution which saw leaders like Safiya Zaghloud and Nahawiya Moussa lead the call for equal rights.

According to UN rape statistics reports and per capita cases of recorded rapes, Egypt is in 50th or last place, with 87 rape-reported cases in 2008. In the past, many sexual assaults, rape, and sexual harassment went unreported, many times due to the women's fear of the stigma that comes in a society that puts a social value on virginity. What is feeding the existing alleged sexual harassment is the seemingly uneducated Egyptian men's attitude towards women. These sudden cases of harassment of women are new to Egyptian society and didn't take place before 2008, and include incidents of assault against women during Eid Festivals and in public gardens and cinemas.

There are many physical training centers that teach self-defense to women, but the Tahrir Bodyguards and Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment are leaders in fighting current sexual harassment during protests past the Arab Spring.

“I was never physically assaulted, but I was harassed, albeit without any direct connection to the revolution. It happened to me many years before,” Soraya Baghat, a full-time member of the Tahrir Bodyguards and a women's rights activist, told The Media Line. “The motive behind our group is that we don't want women to risk getting attacked and for those of my fellow activists who were attacked, to go through this again.”

She said she believes that sexual harassment can happen at all levels of society, regardless of economic and social standing, but there is hesitancy to report it when it happens to people from the same economic class because of the embarrassment involved and the social consequences of the scandal in Egypt's closed society.

Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment, co-founder Dalia Abdel Hamiid, 31, a graduate in anthropology from the American University in Cairo, says its aim is to “break the silence and take the problem outside of Tahrir Square.” She says the main difficulty is society “accepting” such harassment. “It's a patriarchal society where males are preferred over females. I am sexually harassed on a daily basis on my way to work. It is annoying but I learn to live with it,” she told The Media Line.

One woman, a Californian living in Cario, said that “If anyone ever tries to touch me against my will, you won't see that person in one piece again.” 

Neveen Bishay, a woman dentist working in Cairo's upscale Zamalek area, noted that “Sexual harassment in Egypt is flirting. Touching body parts is sexual assault, and not just harassment.”

However, Dr. Heba Qoth, a professor at the Cairo Faculty of Medicine and renown sociologist who has her own radio show on how to have a healthy sex life, argued that harassment has many degrees and is understood differently by different people. Some even consider flirting as sexual harassment  As for the Tahrir Square incidents, she said “I wouldn't call it sexual harassment. It's an organized assault to scare women and sometimes attack them, but we cannot confirm it's sexual.”

There is no severe punishment in Egypt for sexual harassment or sexual assault and it's hard to prove, according to legal experts.”The law considers sexual harassment and assault as a misdemeanor, and usually the assailant is fined about $5, or three months in jail, or both,” one lawyer told The Media Line. Asked about the Tahrir Square incidents, he said: “There is more propaganda than fact, and a few people wanting to be in the spotlight. The sexual assault cases that I saw were merely groups of individuals assaulting another individual, who happened to be female.”

Some Egyptians interviewed said sexual harassment isn't a growing concern compared to other countries they visited. They claimed that rising aggression now and in the past few years can be attributed to the deteriorating economic situation.

“When you and I flirt, it is acceptable. When lower class folks do it, it's called harassment – might makes right, or money makes right,” an academic researcher who chose to remain anonymous said.

“Rape isn't intended just for females at the protests, males get harassed as well, and it's symbolic and intended to rape the revolution as a whole. The whole idea behind the systematic assaults is to make the victims feel ashamed,” Alaa Alaswani, an Egyptian novelist, and a founding member of the political movement Kefaya said in an interview on ONTV.

“Egypt's current status quo has made men lose their sense of manliness. To me it's an assault by a stronger creature against a weaker creature who happens to be a woman, and we can't pinpoint if it's sexual or not. What is happening now happened early in the revolution, when the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) was ordering soldiers to conduct virginity tests and attack women at the protests,” Lobna Monieb, a female activist and correspondent for the Japanese newspaper Asabi Shenbum., told The Media Line. She also noted that men get assaulted too, with incidents during riots in which men were physically and sexually assaulted in public by the riot police, the military or private citizens.

The issue, which has gotten a great deal of media coverage, therefore is whether what is happening in Tahrir Square is an organized event by pro-regime elements, where “sexual assault mobs” are determined to deter women – who represent 52 percent of the population and can therefore have a strong bearing on events and perhaps even topple the government — from participating in the ongoing protests.

Colleges reminded of legal duty to prevent harassment

An Israeli civil rights group has sent letters to 150 U.S. college presidents reminding them of their legal obligations to prevent the harassment of Jewish students on their campuses.

In its letter dated Sept. 8, the Shurat Din-Israel Law Center in Tel Aviv also reminded the administrators that their schools have a duty “to reasonably prevent university funds from being diverted to unlawful activities that are directed against the state of Israel.”

The center, which according to one report was credited with mostly shutting down the second Freedom Flotilla to the Gaza Strip this summer, cites specific cases of what it calls anti-Israel hostility and Jewish harassment at Rutgers University and the University of California, Berkeley. The letter noted a recent lawsuit by a Berkeley alumnus contending that the university failed to protect her from physical attacks by a pro-Palestinian student.

While academic and political debate are a right, the letter said, “there are limits to these that students and campus officials must be made aware, especially with regard to anti-Israel activities.”

The letter was signed by Kenneth Leitner, a lawyer for the 8-year-old center, which also has offices in New York.

According to Commentary Magazine, the center was able to prevent most of the 10-boat Freedom Flotilla II from sailing to Gaza from Greece by informing insurance companies, satellite providers and Greek authorities of potential liabilities issues stemming from the flotilla.

Homosexual Israeli soldiers claim harassment

Gay and lesbian soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces said they have been sexually harassed during their military service.

Forty percent of the homosexual soldiers said they were verbally abused and 4 percent said they were physically abused, according to a new survey by the Israel Gay Youth organization.

Some 45 percent of respondents in the study said they heard homophobic remarks frequently or very frequently in their units, while 59 percent of soldiers in combat units said they heard homophobic remarks frequently.

Sixty-three percent of respondents said they had come out to their family, but only 32 percent had told fellow soldiers or their commander about their homosexuality.

Some 364 gay and lesbian soldiers currently serving in the Israeli military or discharged within the last year were surveyed for the report.

The IDF would not comment on the data but told Haaretz that all abuse claims are handled in an appropriate manner.

Couple Fights Harassment

"Be Careful," Jill Jacobson said.

An odd warning given to a reporter heading to the relatively safe neighborhood of West L.A., to investigate what might be a matter of bad neighbors, or a more noxious case of anti-Semitism. Jacobson’s accusations come at a time when anti-Semitism is flaring up around the world, and here at home — two teenage boys were attacked only last month in Beverlywood.

The trouble for Jacobson began last June, when her husband, Paul Dorman, moved in. Until then, Jacobson, an actress who has appeared regularly in such TV series as "Falcon Crest" and "Star Trek: Deep Space 9," had lived on the quiet cul-de-sac near Pico and Sepulveda boulevards for over seven years, mostly at peace with her neighbors.

Jacobson says she casually mentioned to next-door neighbor Ruben Haro that her new husband was a cantor at Sinai Temple. The harassment reportedly began soon after. Haro forbade the couple from parking their car on the part of the curb that adjoined his property, Jacobson says. Soon after, the taunting, the yelling and the videotaping began, according to the couple.

Across the street, Barbara Robbs lived with her grown children, one of whom had a criminal record and a violent past. Her son, Leonard Robbs, is now in jail for threatening the lives of Jacobson and Dorman. On Robbs’ front lawn, a sign reads "God bless my son Leonard aka Juice. He went to jail for the lie to the police of my Jewish neighbor."

Jacobson and Dorman have installed a security system and now keep a video camera by the door, which they take whenever they leave the house. They are afraid of their neighbors, and the tapes they have made show good reason to be.

What they have captured on the tapes reveals clearly that Haro and Robbs have a problem with their Jewish neighbors. Dorman’s camera has captured some disturbing incidents and documented the angry signs and pictures that clutter Robbs’ front lawn. Haro can be heard taunting Dorman with "Jew boy, Jew boy," followed by an unclear statement that Dorman claims is "Monster with the horns."

Barbara Robbs, standing in the street, complains loudly in a video that, "when I forget my god, dealing with you and your god, I have a problem." From her own front lawn, she appears on the video waving a copy of The Jewish Journal at the camera and yelling, "Satan in your church, in your synagogue."

On Sept. 1, 2001, while arguing about the patch of grass on city property between their homes, Haro sprayed Jacobson in the face with a garden hose. The incident was reported to police and classified as battery.

In January, the couple sought and won a restraining order against Leonard Robbs (who later went to jail in part for violating that order). In March, restraining orders were obtained covering Haro, other members of the Robbs family and a third neighbor.

Tensions continued to build until, in March, police returned to the cul-de-sac when a friend of Barbara Robbs reportedly swung a tire iron at the couple as they walked their dogs past Robbs’ home. The incident allegedly took place prior to the latest restraining orders.

Police have been called to the cul-de-sac many times, when Jacobson or Dorman feared their neighbors’ harassment would escalate to violence. Jacobson and Dorman themselves have also had a complaint filed against them. The same day as the reported tire iron incident, the Department of Animal Regulation served a notice to Jacobson and Dorman for their two dogs’ excessive barking. Barbara Robbs would later be cited by police for violating her restraining order by barking at Jacobson.

Though Jacobson and Dorman believe the harassment stems from anti-Semitism, it is not clear, either from the tapes or the police reports, that anti-Semitism is a motivating factor in the harassment, as much as a tool of harassment.

Police reports refer to "an ongoing neighbor dispute over property." Neither Haro nor the Robbs were available for comment.

After the reported incident with the tire iron, Jacobson and Dorman could no longer wait for the police to enforce the restraining orders. They called the FBI, and agents spent five hours at their home reviewing Dorman’s tapes and police reports.

"The FBI is making a determination" about a hate crimes prosecution, Dorman says. "[The neighbors] are clearly anti-Semitic and clearly harassing, but it’s a chicken or the egg question."

With the restraining orders reportedly not stopping the harassment, and fearing that the ambiguity of this neighborhood dispute as a hate crime will keep the police from effectively protecting them, Dorman and Jacobson are trying another tactic: They have filed a civil suit against their neighbors.

Their lawyer, Robert Canny, is seeking approximately $4.5 million in damages for emotional distress and punitive claims.

Though Dorman and Jacobson "just want this to go away," says Canny, they will stop the harassment through any channels they can.

"[The neighbors] own their houses. We want a levy on the houses," Canny says. "We’re gonna take their houses away if that’s what it takes."

After nearly a year feeling trapped in her home due to anti-Semitic taunting and threats, Jacobson still has trouble believing this is happening.

"You think it can never happen to you," she says, "then you find out it’s just sitting under the surface. Next door."